Imagine the perfect office: A clean and quiet place to work with decor that you love, comfortable furniture, privacy when you need it, and even a window. It sounds lovely, and just imagine how much more you could get done in a day if you worked in a space that you loved.
A group of researchers (Al Horr et al., 2016) combed through studies of indoor office environments and found that, overall, a well-maintained indoor office environment results in people taking fewer sick days, reduced turnover, improved employee satisfaction, and increased productivity compared with the average office. Green buildings in particular, meaning those built and designed to reduce environmental impact, increase employee productivity and wellbeing.
So overall, well designed office spaces end up housing employees who are more productive, healthier, happier, and less likely to quit than employees in a setting that was designed to minimize expenditures.
Office Buildings Are Large-Scale Problems
The building itself is a large-scale problem, which makes it harder for businesses (mush less individual employees) to control. Businesses often lease their office space, and considerations such as cost and availability probably dictate where the office will be much more than whether the employees will be happy in the building.
There are other aspects of a workspace that affect employee productivity. The researchers I mentioned earlier point to eight of them:
- indoor air quality and ventilation
- thermal comfort
- lighting and daylighting
- noise and acoustics
- office layout
- biophilia (proximity to nature, such as plant life) and views (windows)
- look and feel
- location and amenities.
Indoor Air Quality
Air quality and ventilation are building-wide issues, but they are massively important. Poor indoor air quality can be the result of poor ventilation or air circulation, fumes coming off furniture and carpeting, or a combination of these factors plus others. Building owners see poor indoor air quality as a problem that’s too expensive to fix and not troubling enough to worry about. But the effects are massive:
“There is a debate in the built environment sector that higher ventilation rates result in higher energy consumption. Researchers argue that higher occupant productivity by better [indoor air quality] would lead to an overall benefit for both the occupants and the building. Higher ventilation rates in a building could result in a financial return from 10 to 60 times greater than annual energy and maintenance costs. … It was in the late 1990s when the first published findings from a series of case studies indicated direct productivity loss due to poor indoor air pollution. Productivity loss due to bad air quality is documented in many research studies. Research conducted on perceived air quality signifies the importance of occupants’ perception of healthy indoor air for better work performance.”
Thermal comfort may sound like a slightly awkward way of saying “temperature,” but it’s not the same as temperature. Thermal comfort is highly subjective. It varies by the individual, but there are some similarities among groups of people based on sex, age, and even geographic location. People who live in regions with a higher mean temperature, such as the tropics, tend to prefer a higher indoor temperature, and vice versa. However you slice you, being unhappy with the office temperature leads to productivity loss, and the effects vary based on the kinds of tasks being done.
“Studies indicate that temperature change within the 18C-30C range can influence the performance of office occupants in tasks like typewriting, learning performance and reading. The temperature range 21C-25C is a stable temperature range for office productivity. There is a decrease in occupant performance by 2 percent per 1C increase in temperature in the range of 25C-30C.”
Just as different tasks require different ideal levels of thermal comfort, they also require differing amounts of natural light. A video editor needs different lighting conditions to work than a salesperson. Researchers found that organizations that bother to take natural light exposure into consideration have higher employee productivity.
“Companies like Lockheed Martin and VeriFone have reported a 15 percent decrease in absenteeism and a 47 percent increase in attendance, respectively, in buildings designed to provide maximum daylight for their occupants.”
Similar to many of the other factors that create a happy and comfortable office space, noise is subjective. Overall, increased noise correlates to a drop in productivity, but on a sliding scale. The noisier a space, the less people are able to focus, and there’s some consensus that it’s worse for tasks that involve words or numbers.
Additionally, unwanted sounds, whether it’s a rattling ventilation system or the chatter of colleagues, increase stress, which in general is associated with lowered productivity. It’s worth noting, too, that open office plans are notoriously bad for acoustic reasons.
“In a study, researchers experienced a drop in performance by 66 percent in ‘memory for prose’ tasks when participants were exposed to different types of background noises. About 99 percent of the people surveyed in an experiment reported on their concentration being impaired by office sounds such as unanswered phones and background speech. Both internal noise and external noise affect occupant’s performance and leads to stress and anxiety and possibly creating long term health issues for occupants. … Open plan office noise can have a negative impact on the fatigue, motivation and performance of employees. Tasks associated with word processing and numbers’ calculation are affected by internal office noise. Open plan office employees are more prone to privacy issues and disturbances due to the various office sounds around them.”
Does your workspace have rooms with doors, cubicles, an open-office plan, or a mix of these options? Whatever the layout, the design of the space greatly influences two factors: proximity (to other colleagues, usually) and privacy.
Some have argued that open office plans increase proximity among colleagues and therefore promote collaboration. And among certain types of workers who do certain kinds of tasks, it may be true. That said, most workers report interruptions and distractions as two key reasons they experience a decrease in perceived productivity. Privacy also decreases, an effect that’s more noticeable among female employees in open office plans than males.
“Behavioural and social aspects such as privacy, collaboration, interaction and distraction are subjective and influence occupants’ comfort… The physical setting and layout is part of organisational culture and it reflects the openness, equality and collective reviewing in an organisation. Literature also suggests that national culture indirectly affects the organisational culture and office layout. A good office design aims to create minimum tension between an organisation’s work processes and the office environment. An office plan should seek to replicate workflow in its design in order to enhance employee productivity.”
Proximity to Nature
Plants and windows can do wonders to boost employees’ moods and their satisfaction with their office spaces. Having indoor plants and other greenery reduces absenteeism (i.e., calling in sick) by 10 percent. It also boosts productivity and decrease stress. Indoor plants, especially a few select species, can greatly improve air quality by removing chemicals from the air, according to a 1989 study by NASA.
But more than making the air more pleasant to breathe (no small feat, as it can reduce headaches and other minor ailments), simply looking at nature, even passively through a window, can have a positive effect on employees and their work.
“A field study reports that workers with a window view of nature felt less frustrated and more content as compared to workers with a view consisting only of the built environment [citing Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989]. … Views of nature and plants from windows have been reported to help in reducing the anxiety and tension of occupants and to assist in increasing occupant productivity and well-being [citing Chang & Chen, 2005].”
Look and Feel
The very basic aesthetics of an office, such as the shapes, textures, and colors of everything all around, does have an immediate affect on workers. Whether the ideal office has an expansive airiness to it or a more cozy feel depends on what kind of tasks workers do. Creative types do better in “volumetric” spaces, whereas tasks that require a lot of concentration are better done in spaces that have a smaller feel, for example, an enclosed room with a lower ceiling.
“A good office design would incorporate aesthetical features such as colour, texture, spatial shapes that compliment company’s organisational values and provides a conducive space for employees’ tasks and routines.”
Location and Amenities
The location of an office and nearby amenities, such as public transport, restaurants, and services (dry cleaners, post office, pharmacy) improves employee happiness, but also can result in healthier workers. When workers use public transit, they walk more than car commuters (on average, 19 minutes to and from their workplace). Studies show that walking more decreases the likelihood of obesity. Furthermore, bicycle commuters have lower rates of sick time than non-cyclist commuters.
“These health benefits help in keeping employees healthier and hence more productive in the workplace.”
What Can You Do?
The quality of a work environment affects workers. It can contribute to or detract from their happiness, health, and satisfaction. For the most part, the office space is at the mercy of the employer and building owner. But there are a few small ways individuals can improve their work environment.
Adding a few plants to their desk area could boost their mood. Small air-filtering desktop fans don’t cost much and can help improve the air quality of the immediate area. If an office is in an area that supports commuting by foot, public transit, or bicycle, employees should certainly try to take advantage of the benefits that come with a non-car commute.
Al Horr, Y., et al. (2016). Occupant Productivity and Office Indoor Environment Quality: A Review of the Literature. Building and Environment(105) 369-389.
Chang, C.-Y. & Chen, P-K. (2005). Human response to window views and indoor plants in the workplace, HortScience 40: 1354-1359.
Kaplan, R & Kaplan, S. (1989). The Experience of Nature: a Psychological Perspective, CUP Archive.
Mcgraw-Hill Construction (2016). The Drive toward Healthier Buildings: the Market Drivers and Impact of Building Design and Construction on Occupant Health, Well-being and Productivity.
US Green Building Council (2004). Making the Business Case for High Performance Green Buildings, Washington, DC.
Top image by Sam Leighton, CC.
Hearst building image by Dan Nguyen, CC.
Private office with natural light image by Jeremy Levine, CC.
Work pod lounger by Steelcase.
Plants image by Andrew Sorensen, CC.
Bicycle commuter image by acme59, CC.